Friday, August 29, 2008

My "bug" collecting story

A while ago, I said I was going to write a funny story (to me at least) about how I tried to get more insects for the collection that was due before the end of the semester. Well, here goes:

This first part is boring and not funny at all.
I was taking a course in Invertebrate Zoology. This is the study of all animals without a backbone. That's the huge majority of animals in the world. It includes everything from single-celled animals like the amoeba and paramecium to the mollusks like the clam and octopus. It includes the insects and many others. It's kind of like dividing all the people of the world into two groups - the citizens of the state of Massachusetts and NOT the citizens of the state of Massachusetts!

Our professor, Dr. Daniel Hoffman, had lowered the number of families we needed to have in our collection from 100 to 50. Family is the name given to a level of classification in biology (here is a Wikipedia article on the hierarchies of classification in biology). For instance, all the bees are in one family - Apidae. So, you couldn't have a bumblebee and a honeybee in your collection. They are both in the same Family. The size of the collection was reduced early in the semester so, of course, I assumed that since we only had to do half the work it would be a piece of cake. I didn't rush right out and get a bunch of specimens. I had all semester. If only I had thought for a minute. This was the fall semester. It got colder as the semester progressed. Insects don't like the cold. How many insects have you seen in penguin or polar bear movies? It didn't take too long for me to panic. It was October and I had less than half the specimens I needed. I was looking everywhere. I was digging under the bark of decaying trees, I was scouring the basements of all the labs, I was searching through the botany lab's greenhouse. I was running out of time and was nowhere near the end. The funny thing about panic is that it caused me to miss a lot of good places where I would go in later years for non-panicked insect collecting.

Every day after dinner, I'd climb on my bicycle and go for a long ride that ran along the river. There were a lot of low, wet areas and one particular day I had to ride through clouds of various kinds of insects. So, I came up with the great idea to attach some sort of bag to the front of my car and drive along this same road at night. I'd get more specimens in an hour than a student could hope for! So, I got a coat hanger and my laundry bag, slid the hanger through the place where the draw-string went to close the bag and wired the bag to my front bumper. That didn't work because the bag had nowhere to open - it bumped into the grill of the car. So, then I moved it up and attached it under the hood so that the bag was above the hood. I put it on the passenger side of the car so it wouldn't block my view but I had to keep looking over at it to see if I was getting anything and that was as bad for my driving as a blocked view. So, then I moved it to the driver's side of the car. This way I could "aim" the car at promising things that showed up in the headlights. There didn't seem to be many insects that night, though. I kept pulling over to check the bag and I saw nothing. Talk about panic. I was wasting my best chance here. So, after checking the bag once more, I stopped to think for a minute. In the headlights I could see that I seemed to be on the edge of a large grassy field. I had this vision of thousands of insects laying low in the grass. From what I could see (not very far - you idiot), it looked flat so I got into the car, pulled off the road and started driving through the field. The results didn't match my imagination. There was no cloud of insects rising from the grass as I plowed through it but I could have been missing it because I couldn't see well over or around the bag that was flying in front of me. So, on I drove hoping to hit the spot where all of the insects must surly be hiding.

As I craned my head to try to see around the collection bag ballooning out in front of me, I noticed the grass getting higher and I could feel the ride getting rougher. Now, the grass had become high weeds that were higher than the hood of my car. Now I had no idea where it was or how far I was from the road. I thought I'd better turn left and head back for where I thought the road must be. Still the weeds grew higher and higher. Now I was really having trouble controlling the car. Finally, I came out on the road. The last 20 yards or so I couldn't see where I was going because the weeds had gotten so high. I stopped on a wide part of the shoulder to inspect my collection bag. Nothing! I was devastated. As I stood there next to my car, I looked over at the field I'd been driving through. I could see a barn off in the distance and the glow of lights in the house next to it. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the night after turning off my headlights, I saw that I'd been driving through the edges of a corn field. I couldn't believe how lucky I was that I didn't run into a fence or a ditch as I had driven. It didn't look like I'd gone through the main part of the field but just on the edges that weren't tended. Perhaps seed was carried there by animals or scattered by the wind. I must have turned off just in time.

I did finish the insect collection but just barely. I was a day or so late as I looked for one more specimen to fill out the collection to 50. I expanded my search and finally one day, when I had the hood of my car up to check the oil, I noticed a horrible, mangled grasshopper-like insect stuck in the radiator of the car. I did a cursory classification and stuck it in the collection. The funny thing is that it was probably there from my drive through the field and was the only specimen I got from that adventure.

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